The courage to speak up

Can we even begin to understand the courage and grit it takes for a woman to speak up against her sexual assault? In a climate that is changing, we still continue to shine a spotlight on the victim, not her predator. My column in Hindustan Times:

The complainant in one of India’s most high profile sexual harassment cases is telling me about the price of speaking up. A hostile work environment, mental stress, failing health, long and costly litigation and, despite it all, loss of a job, says the woman researcher who filed a complaint against RK Pachauri in February 2015 when he was still boss at TERI.

“Even today I worry about entering an office room and am scared to open my email,” she says.

Three years later, trial is yet to begin. But, says the researcher, “Sexual harassment by powerful bosses continues because we have a culture that turns a blind eye to it.”

In all the thunder of a furious October, have we paused to think about the courage it takes to speak up? Courage in a climate in which the naysayers mutter about “false accusations” and “why she didn’t speak up earlier”, in which we shine the spotlight on victims rather than the accused and in which we speculate about ulterior motives.

We don’t see those sleepless, anxiety-filled nights, the waiting at the lawyer’s chamber to discuss criminal defamation notices received, the mortification of knowing that conversation at the office ceases as you approach because they’re gossiping about you.

Speaking up also means calling for evidence, which might not exist — how do you prove that a man stares at your breasts while talking to you or asked you to share his hotel room on an outstation assignment?

In the course of this past week, two more women have spoken about allegedly horrific episodes of the past. In The Indian Express, Anjuli Pundit has detailed her harassment over seven months in 2015 at the hands of her boss, Rakesh Sarna, MD and CEO of Taj Hotels, who resigned in September 2017. Even though, she says, she worked in a company that believes in “women’s rights”, it was Pundit who was shunted to a back office job when she complained, a move she sees as a “demotion”, while her boss stayed on, unscathed.

The second woman, Pallavi Gogoi, has written in The Washington Post a personal account that accuses her then boss, MJ Akbar, of rape over a period of time. An editor’s note clarifies that Akbar has, through his lawyer, stated that the allegations are “false and expressly denied”.

Why come out now? Tweets Gogoi: “Those before me have given me the courage to reach into the recesses of my mind and confront the monster that I escaped from decades ago.”

I ask the woman researcher what had prompted her to speak up in 2015. To seek closure, she says. “Many of us don’t realise how powerful our voices can be, how we can make a difference to not just our lives but to society.”

I apologise to her for dredging up what are undoubtedly traumatic memories and she replies: “You don’t. You remind me the worst is over and how I found myself again.”

First published in the Hindustan Times

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